Rafford and Horner on the bogus Howland log

Today we take a look at the Howland Island radio log through the eyes of two of history’s most accomplished and respected Earhart researchers, Paul Rafford Jr. and Dave Horner.  The questions raised by the multiple discrepancies between the two sets of radio logs associated with the Earhart flight, the radio room of the Coast Guard Cutter Itasca and the one kept on Howland Island, are disturbing to say the least, and open doors to a wide range of justifiable speculation about what was really going on during those critical hours in the morning of July 2, 1937.  

The following article appeared in the March 1998 edition of the Amelia Earhart Society Newsletters.  Boldface and italic emphasis mine unless noted. 

“The Cipriani/Howland Island Radio Log: Fact or Fiction?”
by Paul Rafford Jr., Jan. 25, 1998

In 1994, while looking for a friend’s address in the Radio Amateur Call Book, former Naval Officer and retired radio engineer John P. Riley suddenly caught sight of a familiar name, Yau Fai Lum.  This had been the name of the radio operator on Howland Island during Amelia Earhart’s ill-fated flight.  Could the Yau Fai Lum listed in the call book be the same one? — He was!  And as a result, John’s discovery set in motion an exchange of correspondence with Lum that now challenges the credibility of the Coast Guard’s Earhart files.

Howland was one of the Pacific islands occupied by the United States during the 1930s using civilian personnel under contract to the Department of Interior.  In addition to sustaining America’s claim to the islands, the colonists collected weather information and radioed it to Honolulu.  In order to keep expenses to a minimum, the Department used adventurous young amateur radio operators and their equipment to man the weather network, rather than professionals.

Yau Fai Lum, undated.  Courtesy of Paul Rafford Jr.

By chance, three of these radio operators were on Howland at the time Earhart was to arrive.  Yau Fai Lum was the operator assigned to Howland, while Ah Kin Leong and Henry Lau were traveling aboard the Itasca, en route either to or from their assignments on Baker and Jarvis.  They were sent ashore to help prepare for Earhart’s arrival.  [Coast Guard] Radioman [2nd Class] Frank Cipriani, ashore from the Itasca, was assigned to operate the high frequency direction finder.

According to the Itasca’s report and radio logs, after the ship departed in search of Earhart, Cipriani, Leong, and Lau remained on the island with Lum.  Under Cipriani’s direction, they would maintain a watch on her frequencies and use the direction finder to obtain bearings, if possible.  Except during periods of battery charging, contact would be made with the Itasca every few hours.

Copies of the Howland radio log, allegedly kept by Cipriani and the Interior Department radio operators, can be found in the National Archives.  The entries reflect bona fide activities that would be expected to occur, such as watch changes, battery charging periods, attempts at direction finding, and exchanges of communication with the Itasca.  However, there is one obvious error.  Items that we know happened on July 2 carried a July 3 dateline.

After locating Lum, Riley exchanged correspondence with him for several months. Although suffering from the infirmities of old age, Lum’s mind was clear and memory good.  But, to Riley’s amazement, he completely denied having taken any part in keeping radio watches for Cipriani.  In fact, Lum denied ever having met him.

When Riley pointed out his difficulty in believing that the two men could have lived together on Howland for two weeks without meeting, Lum emphatically declared that Cipriani had not been on the island during that period.  But he did not deny that Cipriani could have been on the island for brief periods before Earhart’s disappearance.  He pointed out that any work Cipriani did would have been in the Coast Guard’s own radio shack, some distance from Lum’s station at Government House.  He writes, “I did not interfere with their duties and stayed out of the way.”

A close-up look at the Howland Island camp, taken Jan. 23, 1937, that was equipped with a shower for Amelia Earhart that she never enjoyed.  The Coast Guard built an outdoor shower with water supplied by a 50 gallon drum mounted on top of a 10-foot-high platform.  (National Archives.)

Henry Lau was now deceased, but Lum was able to put Riley in touch with Leong. He verified what Lum had claimed, and wrote the following:

Sept. 4, 1994
“No idea who wrote the false log.  I stand no radio watch on Howland IslandCipriani, Henry Lau and me were on the Coast Guard cutter Itasca when it left Howland Island looking for Earhart.”

By law, radio operators must sign their names when going on and off watch. However, Lum’s first name, Yau, is repeatedly misspelled ’Yat’.  His comment is, “If I really wrote that log, how come I misspelled my own name?”

If, as it appears, the Howland log is a fraud, then what about the authenticity of the Itasca’s log?  In order to check it, those entries in the Howland log referring to contacts with the Itasca were compared with the Itasca’s log entries.  In nearly all cases where the Howland log indicates a contact with the Itasca, there is a corresponding entry in the Itasca’s log.  So, if the Howland log is a forgery, then at least some of the entries in the Itasca’s log are forgeries.

Sixty years later, which are we to believe: the word of two old gentlemen who have no reason to bear false witness: — or our Government’s questionable records?  I prefer to believe the two elderly gentlemen.

But, we must question, if the log is false why would our Government have engaged in such a surreptitious effort to make it appear that Earhart’s frequency was monitored with a direction finder on Howland for ten days after her disappearance?  But if true, why classify it for 25 years?  (End of Rafford’s comments.  Rafford passed away in December 2016 at 97.)

Even more comprehensively than Rafford, Dave Horner, and author and former AES member who’s still with us, examines this complex situation and devotes his entire Chapter 6, “The Howland Direction Finder,” in his fine 2013 book, The Earhart Enigma (Pelican Publishing Co.), to a comprehensive look at the Howland Island direction finder, the personnel assigned to Howland Island and the serious questions the phony Howland Island radio log raised and continues to raise about Earhart’s final flight.  

“Amelia Earhart and the Morgenthau Connection: What did FDR’s treasury secretary really know?”  Radio room of USCG Cutter Tahoe, sister ship to Itasca, circa 1937.  Three radio logs were maintained during the flight, at positions 1 and 2 in the Itasca radio room, and one on Howland Island, where the Navy’s high-frequency direction finder had been set up.  Aboard Itasca, Chief Radioman Leo G. Bellarts supervised Gilbert E. Thompson, Thomas J. O’Hare and William L. Galten, all third-class radiomen, (meaning they were qualified and “rated” to perform their jobs).  Many years later, Galten told Paul Rafford Jr., a former Pan Am Radio flight officer, “That woman never intended to land on Howland Island.”

In his wide-ranging chapter, Horner expands on the information Rafford referenced in his AES Newsletters story from radio propagation expert John P. Riley Jr.’s 2000 story, The Earhart Tragedy: Old Mystery, New Hypothesis,which appeared in the August 2000 issue of Naval History Magazine (available by subscription only).  Other sources Horner cites are 1994 and 1995 letters from Yau Fai Lum to John Riley, and Rafford himself.  None of it puts Cmdr. Warner Thompson in a favorable light.

Horner begins this lengthy, complex chapter by stating that the “July 29 [actually July 19] 1937 report “Earhart Flight” [Radio transcripts, Earhart flight] by Cmdr. Warner K. Thompson, Itasca’s commanding officer “raised more questions than it answered.” 

This is a huge understatement, and the confusing situation among personnel on Howland Island, as well as the capabilities of the direction finder placed there to assist in helping Earhart find a safe landing on Howland, doesn’t easily lend itself to a complete treatment here, given the limitations of this blog and its editor, who has never possessed or claimed any significant degree of technical acumen. 

Unlike some, Horner held Rafford in some esteem, calling the former NASA specialist “always a gentleman,” and drew from his work throughout Chapter 6 of The Earhart Enigma.

This whole affair of the Howland DF log didn’t get messy until Yau Fai Lum claimed years later that Cipriani did not remain on Howland but returned to the ship,”  Horner wrote.  All of this surfaced in the early 1990s, when Lum told Earhart researcher and author Paul Rafford and John Riley, both contemporary radio experts, that he had never even met Cipriani.”  Horner continued:

Rafford was stunned.  “Never met Cipriani?  According to the log of the Itasca you were on that flyspeck of an island for over two weeks with him.  How could you possibly not have met him in all of that time?”

Lum responded directly and to the point.  Cipriani was only on Howland Island the evening before and early morning of Earhart’s anticipated arrival.

. . . Rafford continued his questions of Lum:  There are daily direction finding reports written until the search was over.  Your name is there, along with Cipriani’s. [Ah Kin] Leong, and [Henry] Lau.  You all stood FD watches.  Your name is right there in black and white!  How can you deny this?

Coast Guard Chief Radioman Leo Bellarts led the radio team aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Itasca during the final flight of Amelia Earhart.  He has said that “One or two things should never be published as long as anyone on the Itasca remains alive.”  

Lum illustrated this disparity with one immeasurable comment: If I signed or typed the log, how could I misspell my own name?  Yat instead of Yau [Italics Horner’s.]  Our names as well as our call signs are typed, not signed by us.  It is a counterfeit!”

Horner called the above an almost unbelievable development.  The Itasca report from Commander Thompson placed Ah Kin Leong and Henry Lau ashore on Howland Island in order to assist Cipriani staff the high-frequency DF.  But Lum asserted, ‘That is a false report, full of –.’ ”  Lum explained that neither he nor any of the radio operators on Howland were trained or capable of operating the high frequency direction finder — Cipriani was the only one there who was trained to operative the HF/DF. 

All this should be disturbing to anyone who has put any faith in the official Itasca Radio Logs, Itasca Cruise Report or “Radio transcripts, Earhart flight,all of which were produced by or under the auspices and responsibility of Cmdr. Thompson.  

Big questions have never been answered, to wit: Who tampered with the Itasca and Howland Island logs, and why?  Just as disturbingly, what other changes were made to the Itasca and Howland logs — what might have been added, subtracted or in any way made to misrepresent the truth about Earhart’s final flight and the hours immediately after her last message at 0843 Howland Island time?

See my March 31, 2015 post, Amelia Earhart and the Morgenthau Connection: What did FDR’s treasury secretary really know?as you further consider what really occurred in the final hours of the Earhart flight, as well as how and why these strange, irregular occurrences have affected the entire official face of the Earhart disappearance. 

In a 1973 interview with crashed-and-sank author Elgen Long, former Chief Radioman Leo Bellarts said, “One or two things should never be published as long as anyone on the Itasca remains alive.”  What could Bellarts have meant?

For anyone who’s interested in further studying the Howland Island direction finder and all that it entailed, I strongly recommend The Earhart Enigma, available in used, inexpensive copies on Amazon, as well as new. 

8 responses

  1. Mike your ability to sift through the mountains of documents on Earhart and pull out these pieces of truly incredible information is astounding. Please keep up your work for the truth is sadly missing from what we hear everyday. Best Tony

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  2. Mike- a complicated and involved quandary- it would appear that once again, people in authority did not want the truth to come out, and went to lengths to assure that.

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  3. David Atchason | Reply

    I have read Horner’s fine book and should still have it somewhere. It’s probably time to revisit it.

    I have speculated here once or twice that the Itasca log may not have been accurate, thinking, I have nothing to support my statement. I remember reading that the log was not revealed for months or even years. Was that right? If the log was a fabrication, does that mean somebody’s statement that “She was heard so loud on our speaker it hurt our ears” may also have been just nonsense and never occurred?

    That statement by somebody is very convincing (to me at least) that she was very near Howland unless it was a recording, which sounds weird because it conjures up a scenario of someone turning up the volume on an old Victrola with a shellac record of her voice on it. Doesn’t sound any too likely, I admit. But what if her voice was never heard by anybody, loud or soft? Then we need no clunky recording theory and Amelia is free to splash down at Mili Atoll (or be forced down, as the previous Canton Island story states) and we don’t have the ridiculous (to me) hypothesis that she was almost at Howland, couldn’t find it, and flew 700 miles NW to Mili. For that matter, the whole exchange with the Itasca where she mysteriously acted as if she couldn’t read the Itasca never happened, either? So we don’t have to wonder why nobody on the Itasca ever bothered to ask her if she could hear them because the log of the conversation was complete fiction?

    That would clear up a lot of mysteries in one fell swoop. As I have said before to some derision, she was actually talking all along to one or more other stations on a completely different frequency as she overflew the Marshalls. Anyone listening in on 3105 or 6210 KC would be hearing some bogus call for help that had nothing to do with Amelia? In other words, the operation was set up from the beginning to have no connection to what we have been told in the conventional narrative?Not even close? No need to wonder about blown fuses, trailing antenna removed, she didn’t learn Morse Code, etc, all just misinformation distractions.

    I hesitate to say this, but if the Itasca log was completely faked, and anything alternative was possible, she was never anywhere near Howland, ever, then I would say the Canton Island plane discovery story can”t be ruled out as complete fantasy either. Back to the drawing board.
    Sincerely,
    David

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  4. William H. Trail | Reply

    Greetings to All:

    William Galten’s and Chief Bellart’s comments are very intriguing, and indicative of skullduggery afoot. I do agree with Galten — AE and FN never intended to land on Howland Island.

    All best,

    William

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  5. David Atchason | Reply

    I was pondering what Bellarts meant when speaking to Long. My first guess is that it would be that the radiomen especially, and probably the Itasca crew were all in on the doctoring of the logs and were sworn to secrecy or threatened with “an offer they couldn’t refuse.”

    I wonder if the Itasca as aware that Amelia crashed on or near Mili Atoll and they raced off to the NW to see if they could pick up Amelia and Fred before the Japs got to them. The capacity of the Japs to race to pick up the flyers is impossible to know. If the Itasca could make 20 knots they would be at Mili in 35 hours, and if it took the Japs 3 days to pick them up as one story goes, maybe the Itasca thought they had a chance. When the Itasca did speedily take off, they probably had some idea what they were doing, I would think.

    I have long felt that there was some trickery or even skulduggery involved with Amelia’s purported radio contact with the Itasca, something about it just didn’t add up. There is something amusing about generations of researchers picking apart every syllable of the radio log when it may not have even happened at all.

    I can picture Thompson and the 3 radiomen spending hours concocting the so-called log. I do think AE and Fred were headed for Howland, after flying over Truk and the Marshalls they probably did have the range to barely make it. Where else were they going to go? I also believe (as Randall Brink does) that at least Amelia was taken to Tokyo. Why did Amelia’s mother go to so much trouble to attend the trial of D’Aquino?

    Sincerely,
    David

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    1. If she was taken to Tokyo, then she was later taken back to Saipan, where she was seen by far too many witnesses to dismiss. Much of what Brink wrote was nonsense and fabrication, and he was happy to be pictured with Joe Gervais — he of the Irene Bolam lie.

      I wouldn’t be surprised if Gervais, and even possibly Brink, were government agents of disinformation. If they weren’t the damage they did was equally disastrous. Brink’s book was promoted by Larry King! Now what does that tell you, when you consider that King never had anything to do with Fred Goerner, Tom Devine or Bill Prymak, all of whose contributions to true Earhart research dwarfed Brink’s?

      MIke

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      1. David Atchason

        Uh-oh, it looks like I’m going to have to go stand in the corner now. I know the possibility of Amelia being sent to Tokyo was out of the subject of this conversation, I shouldn’t have put it in here. I agree that in the larger sense of the AE mystery there are government agents, for example, and I could be wrong, Gillespie and his widely and frequently publicized theories along with the stature of Ballard joining him make me think these expensive endeavours have to be government funded.

        Also, I have said the Irene Bolam story is a psychological trick, if the Irene story is shown to be a fraud then ALL further stories of Amelia surviving are therefore frauds. Same with the Japanese aviator who claims to have shot her down, but couldn’t have because the Akagi was in the shipyard casts doubt on all shot down or forced down stories.

        Today, I think Amelia did overfly Truk and the Marshalls, maybe not because there were any secret weapons to be found but possibly she was looking for Versailles Treaty violations. I have to admit that sounds pretty thin, though. The Versailles Treaty issue was big for Japan in those days I have read, and Japan vertainly didn’t want to risk any foreigners discovering “violations” so they were understandably defensive about spies. Still, something tells me the AE flight operation had bigger implications than just finding an odd aircraft carrier or unknown airfield. I just don’t know what it was that may have involved falsifying a whole set of logs and obviously getting at least some sailors to go along with that.

        Sincerely,
        David

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  6. The fact that anything was faked smells bad. The cover-up is always worse than the deed itself.

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